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Traveling With Cancer

9 Things to Think About Before Leaving Home

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Updated May 06, 2013

Traveling with cancer, whether for treatment or for pleasure, can be safe and enjoyable if you plan ahead. You may consider traveling to take part in a clinical trial, or perhaps, you have been putting off that trip of a lifetime. The first step is to make an appointment and discuss your travel plans with your doctor. When is the best time to travel? Many physicians recommend not flying for 10 days after surgery, and for up to a month after chest surgery. Are there destinations she would or would not recommend? Check out these ideas on what to consider and what to bring before you begin packing.

1. Medical Records

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Bring a copy of your most recent medical records with you when you travel. Asking your doctor to complete a summary of your care before leaving can make it easier for a physician unfamiliar with your history to get on board quickly if needed. If you have been treated with chemotherapy, bring a copy of your most recent lab tests. If you are using oxygen, pack a copy of your latest oximetry readings. Ideally you will be traveling with a companion who knows you well. If not, consider purchasing a medical alert bracelet with information on your diagnosis, and numbers to call in case of an emergency.

2. Health Insurance

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Check with your insurance company before traveling out-of-state or out of the country. Will your insurance cover medical care at your destinations? Are there preferred hospitals and healthcare providers under your policy? If your insurance will cover you, are there limitations, such as a higher copay? Pack a copy of your insurance policy and keep your insurance cards in your wallet. In some cases, you may need to purchase travel health insurance, especially if you are traveling internationally. Talk with your insurance agent to see what she recommends to make sure you are covered.

3. Medications

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Make sure to bring enough medications with you to last the duration of your trip, and ask your physician to prescribe a few extras to cover you in case of a delay. Pack your medications in your carry on bag in case your luggage is lost. Medications should be kept in their original packaging. Keep a list of all of your medications handy. If you are traveling internationally, make sure you have the generic name of your drugs listed as well as the brand name, since these can vary from country to country.

4. Medical Care at Your Destination

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Locate doctors and hospitals (including addresses and phone numbers) near your destinations before you depart. Your oncologist may have recommendations about physicians or hospitals where you will be traveling. Make sure to bring your onocologist's number with you in case you need to contact him, or have healthcare providers at your destination speak with him.

5. Air Travel

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If you have any special needs, check with the airlines before you travel. Items such as syringes for medications, and FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators (on flights carrying over 19 passengers) can be carried on board if they are deemed medically necessary and you carry a note from a physician (a special form may be required). Discuss the ambient air pressure in air cabins with your doctor. Many small aircraft are not pressurized, and commercial cabins are pressurized to around 5000 to 8000 feet above sea level. For people with compromised lung function, significant discomfort may occur if supplemental oxygen is not readily available. Take advantage of help the airline offers such as wheelchairs and early boarding.

6. General Travel Health

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Getting adequate rest and eating a balanced diet are important when traveling, but a few special precautions should be considered as well:
  • Chemotherapy can affect your immune system and predispose you to infections that otherwise might not be a problem. Choose bottled water if only well water is available or you are uncertain if the water is safe. Avoid ice cubes.
  • Both chemotherapy and radiation therapy can make you more sensitive to sunlight. Pack protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. Minimize exposure during midday, especially in tropical climates.
  • If you have anemia, flying and changes in elevation can worsen your symptoms. Discuss this with your doctor prior to traveling.

7. Coping During Travel

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Many people return from vacation saying they need another vacation. Keep in mind that travel can be extra tiring when you are living with cancer. Pace yourself. Leave time in your schedule so you don't feel guilty skipping a day of exploring to rest. Discuss alternatives to your planned activities before leaving home. Too many of us race through vacations trying not to miss anything. This might be a good time to learn to stop and smell the roses.

8. Blood Clot (DVT) Prevention

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Blood clots (deep vein thrombosis) occur too often among travelers, and a diagnosis of cancer raises the risk.
  • When traveling by plane, stand up at least once an hour and walk around. Many international flights actually offer a video on leg exercises to do to lower the risk of blood clots. Choose an aisle seat if possible, and ask if bulkhead seats (more legroom) are available when you make your reservations.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • Ask your oncologist if you should wear compression stockings during flights and long car rides. Your doctor may recommend that you take aspirin or receive a single injection of low molecular weight heparin as a preventative measure.

Further reading:

9. International Travel

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Talk with your doctor if you will be traveling internationally. A few things to consider:
  • Make sure the food you eat is cooked thoroughly. Peel fruits. Avoid ice, and stick with bottled water.
  • You may need a letter from your doctor if you are taking narcotic pain medications. You will also want to make sure these are legal in the countries you will be traveling to.
  • Keep a list of a few important words and phrases with you such as your diagnosis, and how to ask for emergency help.

10. Sources

Aerospace Medical Association. Medical Guidelines for Airline Travel, 2nd Edition. 2003. http://www.asma.org/publications/medicalguideline.php

Federal Aviation Administration. Special Federal Aviation Regulation. Use of Certain Portable Oxygen Concentrator Devices Onboard Aircraft. Accessed 08/04/10. http://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library%5CrgFar.nsf/0/E51661CBF42E65C6862571E800593C2F?OpenDocument

Coker, R. et al. Is air travel safe for those with lung disease?. European Respiratory Journal. 2007. 30:1057-63.

Transportation Security Administration. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions. Air Travel. Accessed 05/12/09. http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/specialneeds/index.shtm

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